Rumble in the Jungle

Palm oil companies are destroying forests in Indonesia and Malaysia. Some communities are fighting back.

photo of a tropical forest on firephoto David Gilbert

Early one morning last April, after a long night of impassioned discussion, Jamaludin, a rice farmer from the Indonesian village of Semunying Jaya on the island of Borneo, rallied a handful of his neighbors to walk to a nearby road built by the palm oil company Duta Palma and, in a simple act of defiance, sit down.

The group’s intent was to stop the flow of traffic between the palm oil plantation, which had been carved from the surrounding rainforest that the villagers call their home, and its buyers across the nearby border, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It did not take long for the first truck to stop. Soon, trucks carrying palm oil fruits to Malaysia and trucks hauling fertilizers and insecticides from the other direction were parked in long lines along the road.

After four hours of blocked traffic, eight military men showed up to talk to Jamaludin and his neighbors. They did not wear uniforms, but military IDs hung around their necks and a few had assault rifles strapped behind their backs. The officials asked the villagers to stand up. The group refused. Then, to the protesters’ great surprise, the military left.

The unexpected success emboldened hundreds of others from Semunying Jaya to join the blockade. As dusk set in over the farms and forests, villagers managed to hot-wire two bulldozers and drive them to the front gates of the plantation manager’s office, sealing off the empty compound. Settling in for the first night of their occupation of the Duta Palma plantation, the villagers from Semunying Jaya were mostly silent, worried about the response from the plantation staff, private security, and Indonesian police. They had every reason to be anxious. Conflicts between palm plantation owners and farmers and foresters in Borneo and Sumatra have intensified as palm cultivation spreads across the equatorial archipelago. Subsistence farmers see the expansion of industrial agriculture as a threat to their cultural and economic survival, and when they resist clashes with political and military forces often occur. Sometimes the conflicts result in violence. Since 2004, according to a member of Indonesia’s legislature, at least 180 people have died in palm oil-related violence in Indonesia. In 2011 alone, 22 people were killed.

As night deepened, the occupiers of the road inside the Duta Palma plantation waited for the crackdown they were sure was to come with morning.

I met Jamaludin in July 2009, when I visited Semunying Jaya while documenting the expansion of palm oil for Rainforest Action Network. As I made my approach up the Kumbu River by motorized canoe, the 60 or some homes of the village were silhouetted against a backdrop of forested mountains. A wood plank led the way from the riverbank to Jamaludin’s two-room, wood-walled and cement-floored home. Jamaludin (who, like most Indonesians, uses only one name) is a barrel-chested man with cropped hair who almost always wears a serious expression under his heavy brow. Like almost everyone in Semunying Jaya, he is Dayak, an Indigenous group in Borneo. As soon as I arrived, he opened a manila envelope of newspaper clippings and photographs. The moldy papers and blurry photos recounted the 2005 arrival of agribusiness firm Duta Palma, and, from that point on, a long story of environmental destruction, community resistance, and state and corporate persecution.

“When the company arrived they told us they were going to build a road,” Jamaludin told me. Townspeople welcomed the development. A road would allow them to sell at market the game, fruits, tree resins, and medicinal plants they gathered from the rainforests around Semunying Jaya. A road would also improve the villagers’ access to schools and hospitals. But the promise was a ploy. When the bulldozers arrived, they began clearing the rainforest for a palm oil plantation. Duta Palma is owned by one of Indonesia’s most powerful businessmen, and the company had secured a permit from the provincial government to clear 30,000 acres of forest. The road that had been promised was primarily designed to move palm harvests from the new plantation.

Semunying Jaya is a settlement of people who identify as Kayan, one of the more than 200 Dayak ethnicities that live in Borneo’s forests. The Dayak once lived a less sedentary lifestyle as they moved within forest territories defined by generations-old agreements between extended families. These large family groups would clear patches of rainforest for dwellings and home-gardens, planting and harvesting tree fruits and cassava. They hunted with blowpipes, spears, and fishing nets. When the fragile rainforest soils could no longer support agriculture, the group would move to their next forest settlement, their previous home left to return to rainforest.

A few isolated Dayak groups continue these semi-nomadic cycles in the Borneo interior, where the forests still provide enough room for them to move. But, in what has become a familiar story for Indigenous nations from the Amazon to the Congo, the past century has not been kind to Borneo’s forest peoples. Persecuted by armed employees of international logging companies, chased out of their territories by oil drilling, flooded out of their homes by dams, and subjected to government relocation programs designed to make them more easily governed, the changes experienced by the Dayak have been swift and often brutal.

Today, most of Borneo’s people live in dusty agricultural settlements on the forest edge, places like Semunying Jaya, where 400 people reside in tidy homes spread along a packed-dirt lane. Carving out lives as traditional agriculturalists and forest collectors, people in Semunying Jaya have sought to take advantage of demand for rainforest products like wild honey, which can bring $20 a pound; damar resin, used to seal the wood canoes that ferry people and products up and down Borneo’s rivers; and agar wood, used for incense across the Middle East. Even as the Dayak became less mobile – hemmed in by development, wildcatters, and multinational corporations – some have found strategies to prosper.

The palm oil boom is a relatively new threat to the island’s remaining forest peoples. The leveling of forests, the draining of swamps, the burning of topsoil – all done to prepare for vast palm plantations – has made the Dayak’s forest-centric lifestyle nearly impossible. The plantations turn diverse forest ecosystems into monocultures and replace self-sufficiency with poorly paid coulee labor that mostly benefits a privileged few. The natural resources of the forest are destroyed in favor of a commodity that, for farmers like Jamaludin, is unknown and without use. People in Semunying Jaya say they do not know what palm oil is for or where it is shipped. They only know that the plantation owners have brought a drastic change to their community.

“Now all that is left is to struggle,” Jamaludin says.

Palm oil is the cheapest form of vegetable oil. It is chemically stable and almost completely tasteless, making it the ideal additive for cosmetics and processed foods such as cakes, cookies, and crackers. In recent years, palm oil also has been marketed as a “green” biofuel. According to the US Department of Agriculture, Indonesia produces 51 percent of the world’s palm oil; between 2000 and 2012 the country doubled its palm oil production to 27 million metric tons. Driven in part by the rapid expansion of the plantations, the country has lost at least 2.4 million acres of rainforest a year over the past 20 years. Monocultures of palm oil trees cover about 19 million acres – an area roughly the size of the state of Maine.

At the current price of $900 per metric ton, Indonesia’s annual oil palm exports are worth about $24 billion. That sum is the short answer to why Indonesian government support for palm plantations continues even as environmental and human rights groups complain about the crop’s impacts.

The forest destruction underway is so vast that it has pushed at least two mammal species to the edge of extinction. (It is statistically likely that never-discovered species of plants and insects have already perished.) Palm plantations on Sumatra have pushed the Sumatran tiger into the mountains; where thousands once roamed, just a few hundred tigers survive today. The story is similar on Borneo, which is split between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei Darrusalam. Populations of orangutans – an enigmatic great ape that Indonesians call orang hutan, or “person of the forest” – have been destroyed by habitat loss. Less than 14 percent of the orangutan’s 1950 population remains. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the expansion of palm oil as a grave threat to the primate’s survival.

The industrial logging also has a global environmental impact. Borneo’s lowland rainforests and peat swamp forests are nature’s densest stores of carbon, and when the trees are chopped down and burned or left to rot, or peat swamps drained and dried, the CO2 stored in them is released into the atmosphere. Even though Indonesia has relatively few factories, all of the forest clearing has pushed the country to the top of the list of the world’s contributors to climate change. One study, commissioned by the World Bank, found Indonesia to be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Indonesia’s Environmental Ministry disputes the accuracy of the widely cited study. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the climate impact of deforestation for palm plantations is significant. A recent estimate by the US Department of Energy (using 2008 data) places Indonesia sixteenth on the world’s largest emitters list, on par with Brazil, Australia, and Mexico.

But for Jamaludin and his neighbors, worries about global climate change are abstract; for them, the impact of the palm plantations is immediate and obvious. Sitting on the floor of his home, illuminated by a single bulb hanging overhead, Jamaludin shared with me a straightforward tragedy. The forest and its resources were once the basis of the community’s wealth. When Duta Palma cut and burned its way through the forest, the community lost its livelihood. Jamaludin said his town never gave permission to the palm oil company to destroy the forest nor did they receive compensation for the lands they lost. Jamaludin was most outraged by the fact that his plans to pay for his children’s university education – a goal that was once within reach – were now out of the question. “All that is impossible now,” he told me before we went to bed. “Now all that is left is to struggle.”

I witnessed what that struggle looks like the next morning, on my first full day in Semunying Jaya. We awoke to a cloud of brown smoke billowing over the village. The smoke, Jamaludin said, had hardly stopped since the company began clearing the forest in 2005. As we charged on a motorbike up the muddy track behind the village, Jamaludin said complaints about the forest clearing did not have the effect he hoped for during his many meetings with local government officials. Only a few hundred hectares of the community-held forest remained – about 10 percent of the original. One sign that Duta Palma had heard Jamaludin’s message was its appointment of a community-relations manager to act as a liaison with Semunying Jaya. He is not Dayak but he is from the community – a recent arrival who married one of Jamaludin’s relatives. But working for Duta Palma comes with risks. Just two weeks after taking the job, a Semunying Jaya villager shot the community-relations manager in the leg while he was walking through the forest. A hunting accident, Jamaludin says. But he refuses to tell me who was responsible, raising the suspicion that the assault was an effort to discourage the company from exerting its influence within the community. The company has also constructed a 10-foot-tall chain-link fence around its offices in the center of the plantation; razor wire has been strung along the top of the fence. This does not seem like a welcoming posture to Jamaludin and his neighbors.

After a few minutes on the motorbike the forest abruptly ended and the close, almost claustrophobic feeling of being under the forest canopy lifted. From the edge of a ridge we had a long view of hills rolling into the distance. Thousands of felled trees littered the slopes. At least a third of the expanse was on fire, the flames reaching 20 or 30 feet into the air. The heat was immense. I could see the new fence around the plantation office gleaming through the smoke and heat. A white helicopter rose off the horizon and circled the center of the plantation, but did not land.

photo of a man in a forestphoto David GilbertJamaludin has led resistance to palm plantation land grabs.

Then we heard the whine of chainsaws. Jamaludin headed toward the sound, walking along the border between the remaining forest and the vast field of destruction. I lost him as he disappeared into the wall of forest, then heard him yelling, his voice bursting with anger. As my eyes adjusted to being back under the canopy I saw Jamaludin holding his machete above a young man carrying a chainsaw. “Who gave you permission to cut this forest?” Jamaludin demanded. The logger dropped his chainsaw, turned, and walked into the forest.

Jamaludin considers his Dayak identity the basis of his claim to the vast expanse of forested hills to the north and east of town. His parents lived a few kilometers away and generations of his family are buried there, scattered across the forests they once moved through. Certain trees, hundreds of years old, hold the spiritual essence of these family members, Jamaludin said. You can see evidence of these souls, he said, if you look in the dark crevices at the base of these trees where small streams of water drip – the physical manifestation of these at-times-playful, at-times-dangerous, spirits.

A short walk through the still-intact forest led us to one of these sacred places, marked with a ceramic urn. The forest was alive with sounds. We could hear a pair of hornbills having a conversation far overhead; a rustling and breaking of branches signaled the presence of a group of maroon leaf monkeys. We continued on, past the edge of the trees and out into the direct heat of the destroyed forest. Jamaludin showed me a second urn. Amid the downed and charred trees it remained unbroken, but Jamaludin said there is no way the spirits could survive such devastation. They have either retreated into the fragmented forest or perished.

As the palm oil boom continues, community opposition to the forest clearing and forced settlement appears to be on the rise. During the past five years, Duta Palma alone (which is one of the 10 largest palm oil producers in Indonesia) has experienced more than 10 protests across six plantation areas that encompass 30 communities. In 2011, thousands of disgruntled farmers protested against what they called Duta Palma’s “false promises” outside the Indragiri Hulu legislative council in the province of Riau, on Sumatra. Speaking to the Indonesian news service Detik, one protester demanded that Duta Palma stop its “deceptive ways.”

An Indonesian friend of mine, Sumantri, keeps a newspaper database of the conflicts that occur near Indonesian palm oil plantations. In 2011, he recorded almost 400 incidents of arrest, arson, and violence at palm oil plantations, but acknowledges his efforts are spotty and dependent on the whims of the local media, which are often pressured by the palm oil companies not to cover protests. According to Sumantri, a certain level of dissent accompanies almost all new plantations. Arrests of activists, community intimidation, violence, and lost plantation productivity are common.

Contains Palm Oil

The ubiquity of palm oil may surprise you. At least one-quarter of all the products found in a grocery story contain palm oil or one of its hundreds of chemical derivatives. Here’s a short list of some of the common brands that use palm oil:

  • Neutrogena: Neutrogena Naturals Multi-Vitamin Night Cream
  • Aveda: Aveda Green Science’s Firming Face Cream
  • Clinique: Liquid Facial Soap Extra Mild
  • Kellogg’s: Girl Scout Cookies
  • Nestlé: Wonka Chocolate Bars
  • Kraft: Cool Whip
  • Earth Balance: Organic natural buttery spread
  • Nature’s Path: Organic buckwheat wildberry waffles
  • Clif Bar: Lemon Zest Luna Bar

In isolated cases, communities working with supportive local governments have won the cancelation of planned palm oil plantations, but none of the past decade’s protests, riots, or acts of monkeywrenching have managed to shut down already operating plantations. The villagers of Semunying Jaya are typical in their fierce opposition to new plantation expansion – and they are also typical in their failure to halt Duta Palma’s forest clearing. Given this fact, it seems only fair to ask: Can grassroots community protests succeed in changing how the palm oil companies operate?

When I pose the question to Hariansah, a leading farmers’ rights advocate in Sumatra, he tells me that actions like Jamaludin’s are the first step in reforming intractable companies. “We have to go out and make the companies see that we cannot be overlooked,” he says. “Jamaludin is an example of what can be achieved when we are brave.”

Brihannala Morgan, director of the US-based Borneo Project (an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project), is more measured. “Community actions create urgency and allow farmers to become political actors, creating a movement with potential,” she tells me. “But will this blockade really impact these communities? It is a critical step but not enough.”

The crux of the problem is this: The palm oil companies have few incentives to compromise with local communities. The agribusiness corporations behind the palm oil boom can grab land from local communities because they are well-endowed with legal connections, money, and the support of Indonesia’s powerful military. Forest communities have none of those assets, and their calls to alter the plantation economy go unheeded because such demands go against the web of relationships that bind together Indonesia’s ruling class.

Take Darmex Argo, the Indonesian conglomerate that owns Duta Palma. The company is among a group of powerful palm oil, logging, and mining companies that were founded by the political and military elite during the natural resource exploitation rush of the 1990s, when Indonesia’s then-dictator, Suharto, used the nation’s forest and mineral wealth to enrich a close-knit oligarchy in return for its support. When Suharto was toppled in 1998 the oligarchy quickly gained control of national-level politics and retrenched its power to access new land for logging and mining.

photo of a plantation carved from a tropical forestphoto David Gilbert

One of Darmex Argo’s largest shareholders is Sardan Marbun, a former general who is a prominent fundraiser for Indonesia’s ruling Democrat Party. According to Chandra Hamzah, deputy chairman of Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, the industrial exploitation of Indonesia’s forests has been a source of “unlimited corruption.”

Morgan believes that the movement should focus on individual land-conflict cases and legal reforms in the national congress. Hariansah agrees. His group is pushing for legal reforms that limit plantation expansion and recognize small farmers’ rights. Since 2007 Hariansah has worked with a group of Indonesian environmental justice organizations at the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to prompt international diplomatic pressure for their cause. But after the submission of three long reports chronicling the cultural damage done by agribusiness, no real progress has been achieved at the UN venue.

On the demand side of the palm oil supply chain, publicly shaming consumer product companies for their links to destructive plantations has had considerably more success. Greenpeace sparked an online media storm with the release of a witty video clip that connected Nestlé’s Kit Kat bar to the suffering of orangutans. After a first round of denials, Nestlé quickly changed its tone and agreed to a comprehensive palm oil sourcing policy. Consumer products behemoth Unilever, after suffering a consumer campaign that connected palm oil-related destruction to its Dove brand of soaps, has become an advocate for more responsible palm oil, backing up its policy commitments by investing in its own plantation in Sumatra where it can monitor environmental and labor conditions. Both Nestlé and Unilever have tried to cut out palm oil suppliers that are expanding into forests.

While companies concerned with their branding have an incentive to search out less damaging palm oil, there remains plenty of demand from less sensitive companies for the kind of untraceable palm oil that can be purchased at the palm oil holding tanks of Rotterdam’s spot market, where the origin of the oil cannot be traced. As long as the majority of palm oil buyers are content with a blissful ignorance, there will be a space for palm oil producers like Duta Palma to continue with business as usual, meaning more forest clearing and more community displacements.

The morning after the Semunying Jaya villagers hot-wired the bulldozers to shut down the Duta Palma plantation, nothing happened. Then, in the afternoon, about 40 special forces police, Indonesia’s unpredictable Brimob, arrived at the villagers’ camp at the office gates. The Brimob came in teams of two on dirt bikes. Jamaludin had reason to expect the worst from them. Just a few months earlier, a long-running land conflict in Sumatra turned violent when Brimob shot six farmers. To everyone’s surprise, the Brimob departed without incident just a few hours after they arrived.

In the midst of the standoff I managed to reach Jamaludin by phone. I asked him whether he was afraid of jail time or violence. He countered my question with his own: “Who gave the plantation company permission to do this? These plantations are so cruel. Where is the respect for our life? We cannot survive if all of West Kalimantan must be turned into palm oil plantations.”

The Semunying Jaya protesters continued their occupation for two more nights, taking turns keeping watch and sleeping, often in the driver’s seat of the bulldozers. Then, on the third day, Jamaludin overheard a plantation overseer on his cell phone talking to the company’s acting director in Jakarta. After seven years of conflict, Jamaludin seized the chance to talk to company management for the first time. He grabbed the phone and told the executive that Semunying Jaya would end its occupation if the company promised to stop destroying what remained of the forest and gave every family in the village four acres of land planted with palm oil. The details of the conversation went unrecorded, but Jamaludin claims that the manager promised to resolve the conflict and make good on the community’s demands.

Within the hour, Jamaludin and the others untangled themselves from the company’s heavy equipment and left the road in front of the offices. Most people returned home. Jamaludin was taken to a police compound downriver for questioning. He was not held long, nor charged with any crime.

When I spoke with Jamaludin two weeks later by phone, he seemed happy and hopeful. He said the company’s commitment to providing each family with a four-acre plot of palm oil gives him some comfort that Semunying Jaya will not be left without any land at all. But Jamaludin is not the kind of man to sit idle and wait. He excitedly told me about the community’s plans to build a new rice paddy behind the village. There was much to be done: Terrace walls had to be built, irrigation canals dug, and the rice seedlings transplanted. Just the day-to-day tasks of a rice-farming community.

But the village’s resistance to the palm oil plantation isn’t over. The new paddy, Jamaludin was careful to tell me, sits just inside the property line claimed by Duta Palma.

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